Nigeria is in a unique position demographically, with a large and growing young population that presents both challenges and opportunities if properly harnessed. With over 60% of the country’s population under 25 years old, Nigeria has the largest youth population in Africa. This youth bulge can be transformational for economic growth and sustainable development if young people are given adequate opportunities for education, employment, and empowerment. However, failure to productively engage the burgeoning youth populace could also spell disaster. As the saying goes, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” There is an urgent need for long-term planning and strategic investments to put Nigeria’s youth on the path to becoming productive contributors to society.
The Scale of the Challenge
The sheer size of Nigeria’s youth demography is staggering. Current projections estimate the country’s population will grow from about 206 million today to over 400 million by 2050, retaining its status as Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria’s annual population growth rate remains over 2.5%, significantly higher than the global average of 1%. With a median age of 18 years, the country has very high dependency ratios, meaning the working-age population has to support a large non-working population of dependents.
Rapid population growth continues to strain Nigeria’s inadequate public services, especially healthcare, education, housing, and employment opportunities. As the Brookings Institution notes in its report, “Nigeria’s exploding population both challenges the economy and threatens social stability.”
About 13.5 million Nigerian youth are unemployed, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, while only a fraction of those working have formal jobs. With limited opportunities at home, many young Nigerians embark on perilous illegal migration journeys abroad in search of better prospects.
Nigeria needs a minimum of 3 million new jobs annually just to keep pace with the growing labour force. However, the job creation rate lags far behind this target. Youth discontent often manifests in diverse ways, including substance abuse, violence, militancy, and susceptibility to extremist ideologies. Therefore, Nigeria’s youth bulge represents a ticking time bomb if not properly leveraged.
The Blessing in Disguise
On the other hand, a youthful population also confers certain advantages. With proper education, training, and employment, young people can become a dynamic force for economic transformation. A McKinsey Global Institute analysis shows Nigeria’s youth have the potential to contribute up to $500 billion to annual GDP by 2030 if harnessed productively.
The report notes that countries that successfully leveraged a demographic dividend generally provided education for at least 95% of children until lower secondary school. They also significantly reduced child mortality and expanded family planning services. Further, they implemented policies to boost job creation, especially for young females.
Nigeria is yet to make substantial progress on these fronts. However, the sheer size of its domestic market, with over 200 million people, provides inherent advantages for vibrant economic growth. Nigeria boasts a massively youthful local workforce that can support booming labour-intensive sectors. It also has an increasingly tech-savvy generation that is creative, adaptive, energetic, and upwardly mobile. With the right skills, training, and opportunities, they are well-positioned to drive innovations that create jobs and wealth.
Policy Actions for Leveraging the Youth Bulge
Realising the full potential of young Nigerians will require long-term structural reforms by the government, private sector, civil society, and external partners. Some key policy actions include:
Investing in Human Capital Development
- Improve access to quality basic education, especially for girls: This will equip young people with literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving abilities early in life. Government funding remains inadequate, leading to poor learning outcomes.
- Expand vocational skills acquisition: Technical and vocational training tailored to market needs can boost youth employability and productivity. Current training facilities are insufficient.
- Increase funding and access for tertiary education: Nigeria’s university enrollment rate remains under 10%, compared to the global average of 38%. Improved tertiary education will develop higher-level expertise.
- Leverage technology and digital platforms: Online education, digital skills programmes, and the expansion of digital infrastructure can rapidly scale up access to learning.
- Strengthen healthcare systems: better healthcare will lower maternal and infant mortality and enable a healthier workforce. The government should increase funding and improve delivery.
Boosting job creation and youth entrepreneurship
- Prioritise industrialization for job creation: labour-intensive manufacturing along with modernised agriculture can productively engage millions of young people if supported by reliable infrastructure.
- Improved access to finance and capital: government funding, microcredit, and impact investing can unlock youth entrepreneurship across MSMEs, technology, entertainment, etc. Collateral requirements need easing.
- Support startups and business incubation: Nigeria boasts a vibrant technology hub ecosystem. More incubators and funding opportunities tailored to young entrepreneurs can catalyse innovative businesses.
- Expand vocational apprenticeships and internships: On-the-job skill acquisition is proven to boost employability. Fiscal incentives can encourage more companies to offer such opportunities.
- Implement youth employment quotas: Policies mandating a quota of entry-level staff under the age of 25 can incentivize hiring young people. Nations like South Africa and Zimbabwe have adopted this.
- Promote the digital economy and IT-enabled services: youth can leverage tech platforms for employment and entrepreneurship. The government should continue digital infrastructure investments.
Targeted social welfare policies
- Expand social safety nets: schemes like conditional cash transfers, unemployment benefits, and low-income housing can alleviate poverty among disadvantaged youth.
- Strengthen national youth service programmes: programmes like the NYSC provide opportunities for skills development and national integration. Their impact can be enhanced further.
- Increased youth representation in political governance: The Not Too Young to Run Act expanded opportunities for youth participation as elected officials. Civic education is vital.
- Engage youth in peacebuilding: Many restive youth can be positively engaged through their involvement in local peacebuilding initiatives and national mediation efforts.
Monitoring and evaluation
A robust monitoring and evaluation framework should track the implementation of policies, measure outcomes, and provide continuous feedback on the youth development strategy. Key metrics to monitor progress include:
- Youth literacy rates
- Secondary school completion rates
- Tertiary education enrollment
- Youth unemployment rates
- Share of youth not in education, employment, or training (NEETs)
- Youth labour force participation rate
- Share of youth working in the formal sector
- Rates of youth entrepreneurship and business ownership
- Youth political representation
- Subjective measures of youth empowerment and satisfaction
Nigeria faces a historic opportunity to leverage its massive youth population for accelerated and sustainable growth. But this demographic dividend is not guaranteed. It requires urgent and long-term investments in health, education, job creation, and other youth empowerment strategies. Failure to effectively harness this youth bulge could have dire social, economic, and political consequences.
With appropriate policies, young Nigerians could become the dynamic drivers of economic transformation, stabilising the polity and driving inclusive development. As Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka noted, “The youths hold the key to the future of the nation.” It is imperative for leaders across all sectors to jointly craft and execute a long-term roadmap to productively engage young people for shared progress.